'Rob Roy' actors chew up grass of director's Scottish homeland

April 07, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It all came down to the green, green grass of home.

He hadn't been back in 15 or 16 years. He'd had a wonderful time, become a world class director ("Scandal," "This Boy's Life," "Memphis Belle") and suddenly, almost by accident, Michael Caton-Jones found himself back in Edinburgh, Scotland, at that city's annual film festival.

"It really felt good," he recalled. "I wanted to come back and do a film there." And that, essentially, is how come two years and $30 million later, Caton-Jones is answering questions about his romantic historical epic "Rob Roy," in which Liam Neeson (an old drinking body, if Irish) takes on the British Empire in general and John Hurt and Tim Roth in particular.

"I started looking for a script, and I read Alan Sharp's and I talked with him and the studio said yes and we were off."

If the movie looks different to American audiences -- its men wear skirts, for one thing -- it will feel familiar.

"Basically what Alan and I did was to make a western. We saw it as a small story from a remote backwater that would resonate with its similarities to the classic American genre. You've got landscape, you've got land barons, you've got powerful codes of honor. That became the starting point but it couldn't be the only thing. The story had to work on its own merits."

But Sharp had plenty of experience. After all, though he was himself a Scot, he wrote two classic westerns, "Ulzana's Raid" and "The Hired Hand," as well as thrillers "The Osterman Weekend" and "Night Moves."

"Alan writes great villains," says Caton-Jones.

But what's the point of writing a great villain if you can't find someone to act him?

For the role of Cunningham, the dastardly fop-killer who rapes Rob's wife and shoots his dog, Caton-Jones chose Tim Roth, a British actor who'd made an impression with vivid but minimalist portraits in post-modern works. He'd gotten his best notices for bleeding to death all through "Reservoir Dogs" and for robbing a diner in "Pulp Fiction."

"Tim had great difficulty at first," Caton-Jones remembers. "He was from the naturalist school, where everything is held back and repressed. Yet we wanted Cunningham to be flamboyant. I kept telling him, 'More, give me more!' He thought he was going to be fired. He just didn't get it. And finally I called him aside and I asked what was wrong. He said he was afraid of going over the top. I said, 'There is no top!' He was fine from there on."

There was no other choice for Rob himself than Liam Neeson.

"I've known Liam for 12 years so it was very easy for us. But he had a tough role. They all run around him and he had to be stolid and noble and believable while everyone else is acting up a storm. He brought it off magnificently."

As for the cast's lone American, Jessica Lange, he says, "We needed a powerful actress. We had two powerful men, Tim and Liam and we needed someone who could stand between them and not get lost. I did not want some dumb Hollywood bimbo. Her work somehow just kept coming back to me and in the end, there was no one else."

Was he worried about the accent? After all, Kevin Costner had once upon a time essayed forth as the British Robin Hood behind the meekest of accents and was universally pounded for the effort.

"Not at all. There are many Scottish accents, some of them very soft. We gave her a soft, gentle accent. And you're making it easy on her by the experience of really being there. It rubs off once she was there, on the set, surrounded by the land itself."

Caton-Jones says making the film changed his life. "I understood the culture for the first time, where I came from. I wanted the film full of Scotland, not in the cheap nationalistic way of Sir Walter Scott [who wrote the book on which the 1953 movie is based] but almost as a kind of spiritual value. I wanted people to feel Scotland."

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